Know Your Rights: Workplace Sexual Harassment

The AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund is committed to advocating for a safe, welcoming, and harassment-free work environment. We offer the following information and resources for all concerned about sexual harassment in the workplace.

    Read more about the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 »
    Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.

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    About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

    Sexual harassment includes offensive or pervasive conduct in the workplace related to a person’s sex that negatively affects a reasonable person’s employment. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is common in workplaces throughout the United States.

    Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion, and it applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments. Retaliation against someone who complains of sexual harassment or participates in an investigation involving sexual harassment is also illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

    Generally, there are two established, legally prohibited types of sexual harassment:

    Quid pro quo: Compliance or noncompliance with a sexual demand is used as the basis of an employment decision.

    Hostile work environment: An employee is subject to unwelcome verbal or physical sexual behavior, including requests for sexual favors and other conduct of a sexual nature that is either so severe or pervasive that it adversely affects her or his ability to do work.

    The vast majority of sexual harassment cases involve female workers who have been harassed by male co-workers or supervisors, but sexual harassment of men also occurs. In 2007, of the 12,510 complaints of sexual harassment made to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 16 percent were filed by men. Unfortunately, there continues to be a lack of information surrounding this type of harassment as men are less likely than women to report this type of behavior.

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    Facts and Statistics

    What Is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

    Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, but essentially, it happens when there is “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.”1

    A court held an employer liable when a supervisor asked an employee about her sexual conduct three to four times a week and made other similarly egregious comments to the victim in front of co-workers. In another case, a court found a single incident created a hostile work environment when a foreman forced a victim’s face against his groin in the presence of male co-workers. Yet another court heard a complaint of sexual harassment in which the victim presented evidence of daily sexual banter, sexual innuendo, and demeaning comments regarding her body and clothes.

    Sexual harassment is not limited by gender. The victim or the harasser may be a man or a woman, and her or his victim does not have to be of the opposite sex. Additionally, harassers do not have to be the victim’s direct supervisor; he or she could be a co-worker, a supervisor in another area, or even a person not employed in the victim’s workplace. In fact, a victim of sexual harassment does not necessarily have to be the person directly being harassed; the victim could be negatively affected by the offensive conduct in such a way to make the conduct illegal.

    Employer’s Liability for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

    Generally, an employer has a legal duty to take action to stop harassment as soon as the management learns of it. In some cases, however, an employer will be held responsible for harassment committed by a manager or supervisor, even if no one else knew what was occurring.

    When a supervisor engages in harassment that results in an adverse employment action against the victim, the employer can be held liable, even if management was unaware of the harassment.

    Likewise, an employer may be liable when a harasser creates a hostile work environment. An employer can limit liability, however, by showing that it took reasonable steps to prevent and promptly address the problem and that the victim unreasonably failed to take advantage of these measures.

    When the harassment comes from a co-worker, an employer is liable if it knew, or should have known, about the harassment. The employer will not be liable if it took immediate and appropriate actions to stop the harassment and address the conflict.

    Many states have adopted stronger protections against sexual harassment than required by Title VII. States that have stronger anti-harassment laws may not follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions and precedent. For more information, check out the relevant laws in your state or contact an employment lawyer in your state.

    Statistics

    In 2011, there were 11,364 complaints of sexual harassment made to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: 84 percent filed by women and 16 percent filed by men. 1
    A telephone poll of 782 U.S. workers, performed by Louis Harris and Associates, revealed that

    • 31 percent of female workers reported that they had been harassed at work,
    • 7 percent of male workers reported that they had been harassed at work,
    • 62 percent of those reporting they had been harassed took no action,
    • 100 percent of the women harassed reported that the harasser was a man, and
    • 59 percent of the men harassed reported that the harasser was a woman.

    Of the women who had been harassed

    • 43 percent reported that their harasser was a supervisor,
    • 27 percent were harassed by an employee senior to them,
    • 19 percent were harassed by a co-worker at their level, and
    • 8 percent reported being harassed by a junior employee.2

    A 2004 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 90 percent of companies offer sexual harassment prevention training programs. 3

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    Strategies for Victims

    What to do if you’re the victim of sexual harassment?

    When you are faced with a harasser, remember that every situation is different. The following suggestions should be adjusted to meet your situation and level of comfort.

    Tell the harasser

    • That their attention is unwanted,
    • What they have done — name the behavior and be specific, and
    • That he or she should stop the offending behavior. You may want to write the harasser a letter; keep a copy for your records.

    Document

    • The harassment. Keep a log of what is happening; include each incident and the time, place, and witnesses of each incident. If you are able, ask co-workers who witness the harassment to write down what they have seen. Make your entries as detailed as possible so that someone reviewing it later has a clear picture of the harassment. Keep this log at home or in another safe place.
    • Negative actions that you experience as a result of your refusal to submit to sexually harassing behavior.
    • Any meetings you have with your employer concerning the harassment. Take note of who was there, what was said, and what conclusions you agreed on. If possible, send a copy of your notes to all participants as a follow-up.
    • Any retaliation you experience after complaining about the sexual harassment. Retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment may also be illegal.

    File a complaint

    • Begin with formal channels in your workplace. Look at your employee handbook or check with your human resources department.
    • With your supervisors. Inform them as soon as possible. Preferably, tell them in writing and keep a copy of the letter with your log. It is essential that your employer have the chance to correct the problem before you can make any legal complaints.
    • With the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you plan to file a lawsuit, you must first file a sexual harassment complaint with the EEOC and/or your state’s fair employment agency. When investigating allegations of sexual harassment, the EEOC looks at the entire record and makes a determination on a case-by-case evaluation.

    Contact

    • Your human resources department or another appropriate supervisor. Usually, members of the human resources department are responsible for knowing and applying the sexual harassment policies of your employer. If they do not deal directly with sexual harassment complaints, they should be able to point you in the correct direction.
    • A lawyer. The law surrounding sexual harassment is very complicated, and a lawyer will be able to explain both your and your employer’s obligations under Title VII. An attorney will also be able to keep you informed of any deadlines that have to be met before a lawsuit is barred. Many lawyers specialize in workplace discrimination, and they will be able to give you advice based on your specific circumstances.

    Effects of Sexual Harassment on Victims

    Sexual harassment can have a number of serious consequences for both the victim and his or her co-workers. The effects of sexual harassment vary from person to person and are often dependent on the severity and duration of the harassment. For many victims of sexual harassment, the aftermath may be more damaging than the original harassment. Effects can vary from external effects, such as retaliation, backlash, or victim blaming to internal effects, such as depression, anxiety, or feelings of shame and/or betrayal. Depending on the victim’s experience, these effects can vary from mild to severe.

    The following are various effects that sexual harassment may have in the workplace.

    Economical Effects
    The most obvious effects of sexual harassment occur when the victim either loses his or her job or loses wages or other benefits. The simplest connection between sexual harassment and loss of work is when a worker is fired for refusing to comply with sexual demands of a supervisor or co-worker. Sometimes the firing is tied to another event but can be connected to the harassment. Other victims may be subjected to forced reassignment, denial of promotions, or demotion.

    Backlash and Victim Blaming
    Victims who report sexual harassment may find themselves victimized again by their co-workers in the form of backlash. Backlash involves a change in attitude toward the sexual harassment victim, such as expressing hostility toward or shunning the victim. Victims may face objectification or humiliation through scrutiny and gossip, defamation of character and reputation, and ostracism from certain professional circles.

    Victim blaming can occur when the harasser or co-workers hold the victim responsible for either the sexual harassment or the resulting conflicts after the harassment has been reported. Some people may believe that the victim could have stopped the harassment if she had really tried or even that the victim may have been “asking for it.”

    The Women’s Crisis Support and Shelter of Santa Cruz, California, has created a list of changes that may occur in victims’ places of employment after they have complained about sexual harassment. These include1

    • The social environment may be entirely transformed. If the victim has only told a handful of people, he or she may constantly wonder who else knows and what they are thinking. The victim may overhear supervisors or fellow employees discussing the harassment. The victim may become the subject of office gossip, misinformation, and speculation; the harasser may be conducting his or her own campaign of misinformation.
    • The victim’s support network may be torn or fall apart. The workplace in which the harassment occurred may be a big part of the victim’s life and social sphere, and it may be turned upside down in the wake of a complaint. Those who do not know the victim well may isolate themselves from him or her; those to whom the victim would ordinarily turn to for support may have mixed loyalties or may turn against the victim altogether.
    • There may be a series of intrigues that continually intrude upon the victim’s ability to do work as usual. The victim is no longer an ordinary employee. Rather, she or he is part of an underground drama.

    Psychological Effects
    In addition to external effects of harassment, many victims suffer from psychological effects as well. Some of these effects include – Depression – Anxiety and/or panic attacks – Sleeplessness – Shame and guilt – Difficulty concentrating – Fatigue or loss of motivation – Feeling betrayed and/or violated – Feeling powerless, helpless, or out of control – Loss of confidence and self-esteem – Withdrawal and isolation

    Recovering from Sexual Harassment
    For many victims, the recovery from sexual harassment can be a complicated and long process. Victims must deal with external effects from the harassment, including potential loss of job, backlash from co-workers, and public scrutiny. Additionally, many victims must deal with internal effects, which potentially include humiliation, loss of motivation, or even depression.

    The following are some suggestions for victims in the aftermath of sexual harassment:5

    Make your recovery and self-care a priority. Do not expect anything to change without taking steps to make it better.

    Accept that the harassment occurred and that it was not your fault.

    Validate your experiences:

    • Talk to people about what happened.
    • Do not let others tell you how you should feel about the situation.
    • Join a support group.

    Research your options and weigh them carefully. It is important for you to feel as though you have control over yourself and the final outcome of the harassment.

    Strengthen your support network. Work on reestablishing connection with those you may have distanced yourself from following the harassment. Additionally, try to form new relationships with people you believe will continue to be supportive of you.

    After your experience, you may find that you want to share your story with others to help educate them about the effects of sexual harassment. Or you may decide to dedicate part of your life to addressing sexual harassment in other ways. Some suggestions for doing so are

    • Writing about your experiences
    • Beginning a support or discussion group for men and women who have been victims of workplace harassment
    • Joining organizations that dedicate themselves to combating sexual harassment and volunteering your time to their mission
    • Talking to people and/or groups about the problem of sexual harassment

    Find support centers or organizations within your community. Many local women’s centers may be areas that provide support and resources for victims of sexual harassment.

    Counseling and Therapy
    Sexual harassment victims may often find comfort and help from counseling. Some people believe that, with counseling and time, you may completely recover from the effects of sexual harassment, while others believe that some effects of sexual harassment will continue to affect the victim throughout his or her life.

    If you find that you would like to speak to a therapist about your experiences, find one who understands sexual harassment and the common feature and effects of such behavior. Please be very careful that you find a counselor who is schooled in this area, as an unqualified therapist could cause more damage. If possible, try not to use your workplace’s mental health staff; their primary duty may be to protect the employer from liability rather than help a victim with her or his recovery. Seek help outside the environment where the harassment occurred.

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    Related Cases

    Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville (2008)

    The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on this case on October 8, 2008.

    In 2001, the metropolitan government of Nashville and Davidson County (Metro) hired Gene Hughes to oversee employment relations for their school district. As part of his job, Hughes was required to investigate all claims of discrimination and harassment filed in the district. Eventually, Hughes himself became subject to a number of sexual harassment complaints and an investigation began. During the investigation, Metro officials asked Vicky Crawford, who worked under Hughes, if she had seen any inappropriate conduct by Hughes.

    Crawford told investigators that she had seen Hughes engage in inappropriate workplace behavior at various times. Hughes grabbed his crotch, asked to see Crawford’s breasts, and even forcibly pulled Crawford’s head to his crotch. Crawford had not previously filed a complaint against Hughes and merely told investigators of these events when asked during the course of the investigation.

    The investigation of Hughes’s conduct resulted in no disciplinary action. Upon the investigation’s conclusion, however, Crawford and other female employees who had testified to Hughes’s conduct were fired.
    Title VII forbids employers from retaliating against workers for voicing opposition to sexual harassment practices or for participating in any investigation conducted under the same statute.

    The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit held that, assuming Crawford’s allegations were true, Metro had not violated Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision. In doing so, the court said that the anti-retaliation clause only protects those who actively resist workplace discrimination — those who make an official complaint, either to their employer or to the government. Protection does not extend to employees who merely participate in an in-house investigation. The court further held that the participation clause of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision applies only to statements made during proceedings held after official charges were filed with the EEOC.

    Crawford appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case this fall. AAUW joined an amicus brief written by the National Women’s Law Center in Support of Vicky Crawford, which was then filed with the court. A transcript of the oral argument from October 8, 2008, is available, and a decision will be issued in 2009.

    Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986)

    Mechelle Vinson filed suit against her former employer, Meritor Savings Bank, claiming that she had been subjected to sexual harassment by her supervisor in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vinson was a teller at Meritor Savings Bank, working under the supervision of Sidney Taylor, the vice president of the branch where she worked. Vinson worked at the bank for four years before she was fired in November 1978 for taking excessive leave.

    Vinson brought suit against the bank, arguing that, during the four years she had been employed at the bank, she had been subjected to repeated sexual harassment by Taylor. At trial, Vinson testified that, at one point in the beginning of her employment, Taylor invited her out to dinner and suggested that they go to a motel to have sex. After initially refusing, Vinson eventually agreed to Taylor’s suggestion out of fear of losing her job. Vinson testified that Taylor made repeated demands for sexual favors after that first time, both during and after business hours, that Taylor fondled her in front of other employees, that he followed her into the women’s restroom when she went in there alone, and that he raped her on several occasions. Vinson said that she had not reported this harassment to any of Taylor’s supervisors because she was afraid of Taylor. Taylor denied all of Vinson’s allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

    The trial court found that “[i]f [Vinson] and Taylor did engage in an intimate or sexual relationship during the time of [Vinson’s] employment with [the bank], that relationship was a voluntary one having nothing to do with her continued employment at [the bank] or her advancement or promotions at that institution.”6 The court found that Vinson was neither a victim of sexual harassment nor sexual discrimination while an employee of the bank. Vinson appealed the decision, and her case was eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that a claim of hostile environment sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is actionable under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    In rendering its decision, the court had to decide if a hostile work environment alone was a form of unlawful discrimination or if liability for sexual harassment was limited to “tangible economic discrimination”. The court held that sexual harassment in the workplace is not so limited, stating that the intention of Congress was to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women in employment. Meritor Bank established that “hostile work environment” harassment is actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    Harris v. Forklift Systems (1993)

    Teresa Harris worked as a manager for Forklift Systems from 1985 to 1987. Charles Hardy was Forklift’s president. Throughout Harris’s employment at Forklift, Hardy repeatedly insulted Harris because of her gender and subjected her to sexual innuendos. Hardy would often make inappropriate comments about Harris in front of co-workers, including “You’re a woman, what do you know?” and “We need a man as the rental manager.” Hardy occasionally asked female employees to get coins out of his front pocket and threw objects on the ground in front of Harris and other female employees and asked them to bend over and pick up the coins.

    In August 1987, Harris complained to Hardy about his conduct. He seemed surprised and told her that he was joking. He apologized and promised to stop the offending conduct. Based on this promise, Harris remained at her job. In September 1987, however, Hardy started the harassment again; he asked Harris in front of co-workers, “What did you do, promise the guy … some [sex] Saturday night?” Harris quit her job in October 1987 and filed suit, claiming that Hardy’s conduct had created an abusive work environment for her because of her gender.

    The trial court considered this to be a “close case” but declined to hold that Hardy’s conduct created an abusive environment. While the court found that some of Hardy’s comments would offend “the reasonable woman,” the court did not find that his actions were so severe that they could be expected to affect Harris’s psychological well-being or her work performance. The court stated that it did not “believe that [Harris] was subjectively so offended that she suffered injury…. Although Hardy may at times have genuinely offended [Harris], I do not believe that he created a working environment so poisoned as to be intimidating or abusive to [Harris].”7

    Harris appealed this decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it. In its opinion, the court stated that Title VII liability can be triggered without requiring that the “harassing conduct [to] lead[] to a nervous breakdown.”8 Rather, Title VII merely requires that the discriminatory conduct be so severe or pervasive that it creates an abusive workplace for someone based on their sex. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor went on to say that as long as the environment could “reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive there is no need for it also to be psychologically injurious.”

    Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998)

    This case involved sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a male oil rig worker who claimed he was repeatedly harassed by his male co-workers. On several occasions, Oncale was subjected to sex-related, humiliating actions, including being sodomized with a bar of soap. Additionally, Oncale was threatened with rape. Oncale brought the harassment to the attention of his supervisors; instead of taking remedial action against the harassers, one of his safety supervisors called him a name. Eventually, Oncale quit his job and asked that his pink slip reflect that he “voluntarily left due to sexual harassment and verbal abuse.”9 When asked later at a deposition why he quit, Oncale replied that he felt had he not quit his job, he would have been raped or forced to have sex.

    Oncale filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Louisiana, but the court dismissed his claim, stating that “Mr. Oncale, a male, has no cause of action under Title VII for harassment by male co-workers.”10 The court of appeals affirmed the decision, and Oncale appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the decision.

    In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Title VII’s protection against discrimination in the workplace “because of … sex” applies to harassment between members of the same sex. Additionally, it held that same-sex discrimination can occur not only in situations involving quid pro quo harassment, but also where a hostile work environment has been created. In doing so, the court recognized that many jurisdictions throughout the country had trouble deciding which series of facts would create situations in which sexual harassment was actionable.11

    Oncale v. Sundowner set the precedent for analyzing same-sex sexual harassment discrimination suits. The Supreme Court held that any discrimination based on sex is actionable so long at it places the victim in a disadvantaged working condition, regardless of the gender of either the victim or the harasser.

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    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is sexual harassment?
    Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions’s guidelines define two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile environment.

    What is quid pro quo sexual harassment?
    Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute “quid pro quo” sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment or (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual.

    What is hostile work environment sexual harassment?
    Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute ‘hostile environment’ sexual harassment when such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

    What factors determine whether an environment is ‘hostile’?
    The central inquiry is whether the conduct ‘unreasonably interfered with an individual’s work performance’ or created ‘an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.’ The EEOC will look at the following factors to determine whether an environment is hostile: (1) whether the conduct was verbal or physical or both; (2) how frequently it was repeated; (3) whether the conduct was hostile or patently offensive; (4) whether the alleged harasser was a co worker or supervisor; (5) whether others joined in perpetrating the harassment; and (6) whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual. No one factor controls. An assessment is made based upon the totality of the circumstances.

    What are some specific examples of behavior that could be considered sexual harassment?
    Direct or indirect threats or bribes for sexual activity, sexual innuendos and comments, sexually suggestive jokes, unwelcome touching or brushing against a person, pervasive displays of materials with sexually illicit or graphic content, and attempted or actual sexual assault are just some of the examples of sexual harassment.

    Who can be a victim of sexual harassment?
    The victim may be either a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of opposite different sex than the harasser. The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

    Can one incident constitute sexual harassment?
    It depends. In quid pro quo cases, a single sexual advance may constitute harassment if it is linked to the granting or denial of employment or employment benefits. In contrast, unless the conduct is quite severe, a single incident or isolated incidents of offensive sexual conduct or remarks generally do not create a hostile environment. A hostile environment claim usually requires a pattern of offensive conduct. Nevertheless, a single, unusually severe incident of harassment may be sufficient to constitute a Title VII violation; the more severe the harassment, the less need to show a repetitive series of incidents. This is particularly true when the harassment is physical. For example, the EEOC will presume that the unwelcome, intentional touching of a charging party’s intimate body areas is sufficiently offensive to alter the condition of his or her working environment and constitute a hostile environment.’

    What can I do if I believe I have been sexually harassed at work?
    You should notify your employer or supervisor immediately. If your employer has a sexual harassment policy in place, follow it, and expect your employer to follow it as well. Put complaints in writing. Take notes on the harassment and be specific in your details — note the time and place of each incident, what was said and done, and who witnessed the actions. If your employer fails to take action, consult an attorney. Should you wish to gain more information or file a complaint, contact the EEOC. For more advice, review the section on Strategies for Victims. Act quickly; if you fail to act within a specific period of time, you may lose your ability to take legal action.

    Question: What happens if I have been punished for reporting sexual harassment?
    Answer: Under Title VII, retaliation for filing a complaint of sexual harassment or complying and participating in a sexual harassment investigation is illegal. Individuals who believe they have been retaliated against should contact the EEOC or an attorney immediately.

    When are employers liable for sexual harassment?
    An employer can be liable for harassment by a supervisor if the harassment results in tangible employment action (firing, demotion, or unfavorable changes in assignment). An employer can also be liable for a supervisor creating a hostile work environment unless it can show that (12) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassment and (13) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of the company’s preventive measures. An employer may be liable for harassment by the victim’s co-worker if it knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective actions.

    Can employers be held liable for nonemployees?
    Employers may be held liable for the conduct of independent contractors, customers, and other nonemployees if the employer knew, or should have known, of the harassing conduct and did not take immediate and appropriate action to stop the behavior.

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    Misconceptions Concerning Sexual Harassment

    Myth: Some people ask to be sexually harassed. They do this with how they dress or how they act. They send ‘signals.’
    Reality: Being subjected to sexual harassment is a painful, difficult, and frequently traumatic experience. Defenses such as ‘she wore provocative clothes’ and ‘he enjoyed it’ are neither acceptable nor accurate.

    Myth: If people really wanted to discourage or stop sexual harassment, they could.
    Reality: Often, the harasser is in a position to punish the recipient by withholding a promotion, giving a bad evaluation, or giving a low grade. In this society, men are known to rationalize their actions by saying that a women’s ‘no’ is really a ‘yes.’

    Myth: Most charges of sexual harassment are false.
    Reality: People have nothing to gain from making false accusations and filing false charges. It is very difficult to file sexual harassment charges, and the system can be very hostile to accusers. Confronting the issue can be both physically and financially draining. Usually, victims are traumatized further by the entire process.

    Myth: If you ignore sexually harassing behavior, it will eventually stop.
    Reality: In a recent survey, only 29 percent of the women who said they tried to ignore the behavior said that it ‘made things better.’ More than 61 percent of the women said that telling the harasser to stop was the most effective method.

    Myth: Only women are sexually harassed; this does not happen to men, and all sexual harassment perpetrators are male.
    Reality: While women continue to experience most sexual harassment, men do get harassed — by other men and by women. Currently, approximately 16 percent of EEOC claims involve men. Also, increasing numbers of women are being sexually harassed by other women.

    Myth: The seriousness of sexual harassment is exaggerated; most ‘harassment’ is really minor and involves harmless flirtation.
    Reality: Sexual harassment can be devastating. Studies indicate that most harassment has nothing to do with flirtation or sincere sexual or social interest on the part of the perpetrators. And it is offensive, often frightening, and insulting to the victims. Research shows that victims must often leave school or jobs to avoid harassment. Many experience serious psychological and health-related problems. They may even be forced to relocate to other cities.

    Myth: We live in modern times, and sexual harassment is becoming less of a problem.
    Reality: Sexual harassment affects 40 percent to 60 percent of working women. Ten to 20 percent of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Approximately 15,000 sexual harassment cases are brought to the EEOC each year.

    Myth: Sexual harassment is inevitable when people are working together.
    Reality: While interactions between people may be inevitable, uninvited sexual overtures are not.

    Myth: A harasser has to have sexual intentions toward their target for the behavior to count as sexual harassment.
    Reality: Sexual harassment is a form of abuse, most commonly an abuse of power. Any unwanted sexual attention constitutes sexual harassment. The harasser’s rationale does not change this fact. 13

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    Still need help?

    If you have more questions, send an e-mail to laf@aauw.org or call 202.785.7750.



    1 “Sexual Harassment Charges EEOC & FEPAs Combined: FY 1997 – FY 2011,” The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 19 December 2012, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment.cfm.
    2 Adapted from Sexual Harassment Support, Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, found at the former website Sexual Harassment Support, Effects of Sexual Harassment.
    3 Society for Human Resource Management. Workplace Violence Survey. http://www.shrm.org/Research/SurveyFindings/Documents/Workplace%20Violence%20Survey.pdf January 2004.
    4 These have been modified from the original list which was found at the former website Sexual Harassment Support, Effects of Sexual Harassment.
    5 Adapted from Recovery from Sexual Harassment, Sexual Harassment Support, found at the former website Sexual Harassment Support, Effects of Sexual Harassment.
    6 477 U.S. 57 at 61.
    7 510 U.S. 17, 20.
    8 Id. at 22.
    9 Id
    10 523 U.S. 75 at 77.
    11 For example, some courts found that same-sex harassment was never actionable, while others stated that such claims would be valid only if they could prove the harasser was homosexual
    12 Adapted from The Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, Frequently Asked Questions About Sexual Harassment, http://ago.mo.gov/faqs/sexual-harassment.htm, last visited Dec. 1, 2008; ‘Questions and Answers About Sexual Harassment,’ Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities http://www.mith2.umd.edu/WomensStudies/GenderIssues/SexualHarassment/Q-and-A.html, last visited Dec. 1, 2008.
    13 Adapted from: Sexual Harassment Support, Myths and Misconceptions About Sexual Harassment, found at the former website at Sexual Harassment Support, Effects of Sexual Harassment.

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